June Pride Month is the perfect time to celebrate members of the LGBT community and their achievements in the STEM field. However, well beyond Pride Month, the consistent visibility of LGBT inventors and scientists is important for showing today’s young learners what is possible for them.
This representation is even more crucial when considering that LGBT students have been found to be less likely to pursue STEM degrees compared to heterosexual peers. Shining a light on scientists in the LGBT community will help bring awareness to their successes, helping remove some barriers for future inventors.
With the help of members of the Sphero DEI Changemakers committee, we’ll introduce 5 LGBT inventors and scientists worth celebrating, exploring how their contributions have helped advance both STEM and equality in the field.
1. George Washington Carver (1864-1943), agricultural scientist
George Washington Carver invented the method of crop rotation as well as over 300 products made from the resulting surplus of peanuts, including laundry soap, hand lotion, paints, and much more. Crop rotation alone had an enormous impact on agriculture, allowing for increased productivity on every plot of farmland.
Our own Kunthea Kry, a Business Systems Analyst, explains, “His invention of crop rotation helped stabilize the livelihoods of many farmers who were former slaves. His work in STEM helped contribute greatly to the economic improvement of the rural South.”
The inventions and techniques he developed were so universal that he received praise from both the black and white communities -- an accomplishment for the times. While closeted in his lifetime, he is widely believed to have been bisexual due to a relationship he pursued with a fellow scientist later in life.
2. Dr. Louise Pearce (1885-1959), pathologist
Dr. Louise Pearce is best known for developing a treatment for trypanosomiasis, or African Sleeping sickness, and is considered one of the most significant female scientists of the 20th Century.
(Image source/credit: Wikipedia)
Her work saved innumerous lives, as she traveled alone at the age of 35 to treat a severe outbreak of the disease in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Throughout her career, Dr. Pearce made many more contributions to medicine, researching and teaching in areas such as syphilis, cancer, and hereditary diseases.
3. John Burnside (1916-2008), optical engineer
John Burnside rediscovered the math behind kaleidoscope optics, opening doors for him to then invent a range of devices like the teleidoscope, darkfield kaleidoscope, and Symetricon. His work is a reminder that there is room for creativity and artistic thought in what are often considered highly technical fields.
(Image source/credit: SFGate.com's Rory Cecil)
Sphero Art Director Taylor Gair says, “John Burnside showed the world how STEM can be used to create art by using optical engineering and mathematics to invent kaleidoscopic devices that create beautiful patterns and projections. One of his devices, the Symetricon, was even used in several movies, making him a STEAM pioneer.”
Burnside did more than break down barriers in just STEM, though. John Burnside was an outspoken activist fighting for the LGBTQ+, along with other marginalized communities. Gair explains, “Burnside was also a pioneer in the gay rights movement, participating in one of the earliest gay protests in 1966 and later helping form several organizations dedicated to LGBTQ+ liberation. His activism wasn’t just limited to gay rights but also Native American rights, women’s and labor issues, fair employment, and housing. John sets an example of what a committed changemaker looks like.”
4. Ben Barres (1954-2017), neurobiologist
Glial cells are the most abundant and mysterious cells in the brain — and today we know a lot more about them and many other neuroscientific concepts thanks to the work of Ben Barres.
(Image source/credit: Stanford School of Medicine)
Barres was a transgender scientist who worked diligently to raise awareness of the strikingly different challenges he had faced as a woman in the STEM field, suggesting ways to make the field more inclusive and fair for all scientists.
Layne Rainey, Sphero Education Partnerships Manager, talks about the impact Barres had, explaining, “Ben Barres’s research helped debunk the idea of intrinsic gender differences in scientific ability. Barres played a huge role in improving the representation of women in all areas of science and in leadership positions.”
5. Lynn Conway (1958-present), computer scientist
Lynn Conway helped drive the STEM field forward by revolutionizing microchip design and developing new methods that are used by computer processors to this day.
(Image source/credit: Wikipedia)
Conway studied physics at M.I.T. and began her career at IBM but was fired in 1968 after she began transitioning. However, this roadblock didn’t deter Conway, as she continued on to become the Assistant Director for Strategic Computing at the U.S. Department of Defense and later a professor of computer science at the University of Michigan.
In October of 2020, IBM hosted a virtual event to celebrate the life and successes of Conway, while also issuing a public apology for her wrongful firing nearly 52 years earlier.
Jamie Rinaldis, Sphero’s Recruiter, says, “Lynn helped to break the mold of what an engineer should be or look like. She not only was an engineer, but also an innovator in a world that needed her ideas but didn't expect or appreciate those ideas coming from a woman, especially a transgender woman. She opened doors not only in technology but also in open-mindedness toward the definition of an engineer in regards to gender, sexual orientation, and race.”
Spark Scientific Innovation with Sphero
The influential inventors and scientists mentioned here are just the tip of the iceberg, as the STEM field both historically and today is full of groundbreaking contributions made by members of the LGBT community. Visibility only continues to improve as organizations like Pride in STEM advocate and provide resources for LGBT people in STEM fields.
Of course, STEAM is an evolving field, and the next generation of inventors and world-changers is only just beginning to emerge. Find out how Sphero’s educational tools can help inspire today’s young STEM learners.